Friday, December 05, 2003



This the fifth essay in a series covering Paul's letter to Philemon.

We continue to look at Paul's appeal for Onesimus, his child and his very heart:

For perhaps he was for this reason separated from you for a while, that you would have him back forever, no longer as a slave, but more than a slave, a beloved brother, especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord. 

If then you regard me a partner, accept him as you would me. (Philemon 15-17)

"For this reason..." Can our sin work the purposes of God? Philemon and Onesimus became separated because Onesimus stole money from his master and ran away. Could he not have become a Christian without running away? For that matter are the providential purposes only for Onesimus' salvation? Could they have actually include salvation, freedom, and a strong bond of fellowship between Onesimus and Philemon? Could they include the letter that has been read and studied for centuries? 

Can sin work the purposes of God? The answer is, "Yes." But does not excuse sin. As Paul wrote elsewhere, "But if through my lie the truth of God abounded to His glory, why am I also still being judged as a sinner? (Romans 3:7)" That God will sometime redeem sin to great glory only speaks of God's mercy and His greatness. Most often our sin brings pain, shame, and death. We can only be thankful for those times when the effects workf for the good.

No wasted words. In his greeting to Philemon, Paul wrote, "Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, To Philemon our beloved brother and fellow worker" Now Paul writes, "If then you regard me a partner, accept him as you would me." Every point that Paul makes in his opening is connected to a point that Paul makes in the body of this letter.  From the beginning, it became clear that Philemon's only choice was to harden his heart and make the wrong choice. Paul is working to make the right choice the easy choice.

Of course, Onesimus did steal from Philemon. Being unemployed, he had no means to repay. This, perhaps, gives Philemon an out. Paul moves to this issue next:

But if he has wronged you in any way or owes you anything, charge that to my account; I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand, I will repay it (not to mention to you that you owe to me even your own self as well). (Philemon 18-19)

Paul, the prisoner of Jesus the Messiah, an aged man, will raise the money to recompense Philemon for the monetary damages inflicted by Onesimus. All that he has to do is send the bill. Paul has written this letter personally. He has not used a scribe as he typically did. He has, therefore, truly bound himself with Onesimus' debt. All Philemon must now do is forget that Paul has in some way saved Philemon's life and send the bill.

Paul wrote earlier that "the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, brother." Now he writes:

Yes, brother, let me benefit from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in Christ. (Philemon 20)

And because accountability is a good thing, Paul continues:

Having confidence in your obedience, I write to you, since I know that you will do even more than what I say. At the same time also prepare me a lodging, for I hope that through your prayers I will be given to you. (Philemon 21-22)

So should Philemon choose to conceal the letter from its other recipients or ignore its request, Philemon is to know that Paul plans to follow up.

Monday: Role Models.

<>< Test everything. Cling to what is good. ><>

Thursday, December 04, 2003


Useless to Useful

This the fourth essay in a series covering Paul's letter to Philemon.

Short post today. It was a late night.

Paul's purpose in writing to Philemon is to restore the two as free Christian brothers. Paul has appealed to Philemon's love for all the saints and to his own situation as a prisoner of Christ Jesus. It is now time to bring Onesimus in by name:

I appeal to you for my child Onesimus, whom I have begotten in my imprisonment, who formerly was useless to you, but now is useful both to you and to me. I have sent him back to you in person, that is, sending my very heart, whom I wished to keep with me, so that on your behalf he might minister to me in my imprisonment for the gospel; but without your consent I did not want to do anything, so that your goodness would not be, in effect, by compulsion but of your own free will. 

For perhaps he was for this reason separated from you for a while, that you would have him back forever, no longer as a slave, but more than a slave, a beloved brother, especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord. (Philemon 10-16)

Onesimus is now introduced to Philemon as "my child...begotten in my imprisonment" and "my very heart." In the Dance that is God's Providence, Onesimus had stolen some money and run away. Somehow he hooked up with Paul and became a Christian. Perhaps, while traveling, he met a Christian, heard the gospel, and became a Christian. Now Onesimus had a conscience crisis. He was a thief and a runaway slave. What was the right thing for him to do. His new Christian friend suggested, "Let's go ask Paul." There are many other scenarios, but Onesimus and Paul came together.

Whatever the initial circumstances, Paul did not rush to send Onesimus back. There was time for Onesimus to begin ministering to Paul's need in prison. Paul weighed the options. He knew that Onesimus should return. Paul pondered on the how.

Paul tells Philemon, "I wanted to keep him." But Paul gives Philemon the honor of consenting to the arrangement.

Friday: More on Providence

Wednesday, December 03, 2003


Philemon's Love for all the Saints

This the third essay in a series covering Paul's letter to Philemon.

I wrote yesterday that Paul's addressed this letter to Philemon, his wife, his son, and the church that met in his home. I mentioned that this was a way of placing pressure on Philemon. His choice would be a public choice. But it must be said that publicity cuts both ways. Everything that Paul writes in the letter is also open to public scrutiny. Of particular importance is that the broader audience can judge Paul's accuracy and wisdom. This lets us know something very important about the next section. The assertion of Philemon's love is not mere flattery:

I thank my God always, making mention of you in my prayers, because I hear of your love and of the faith which you have toward the Lord Jesus and toward all the saints; and I pray that the fellowship of your faith may become effective through the knowledge of every good thing which is in you for Christ’s sake. For I have come to have much joy and comfort in your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, brother. (Philemon 4-7)

Paul has heard reports of Philemon's love and faith. It was probably these reports that gave Paul confidence that he could send Onesimus home. It is reasonable that this same quality convinced Onesimus to gamble his life. 

So before Paul has even mentioned Onesimus's name, he appeals to Philemon's love for all the saints. It is no accident that Paul uses the word "all" here. Onesimus is now a saint. (The New Testament usage of the word "saint" means a believer--not some person elevated by the church as having special status or access to God.). Onesimus is a believer. Since Philemon is one who loves all the saints, it follows that he will love Onesimus. 

Paul prays that Philemon's fellowship of faith may become effective. Since shared faith is the basis of fellowship, it follows that as faith deepens so can the depth of fellowship among believers. On this basis, Philemon's being able to extend the hand of fellowship to Onesimus would be evidence of every good thing which is in Philemon for Christ's sake.

Paul reminds Philemon of the joy and comfort that he has had from Philemon's loves other people of faith. His generosity has refreshed many a soul, and this has pleased Paul very much. Of course, Paul expects Philemon to now refresh Onesimus with the same show of love.

All of this could be hogwash and mere flattery, if written privately. But as a public announcement, Paul must have a sense that such words would be acknowledged by the broader audience. One can picture the public reading of this letter and the nods and gestures of approval rippling through the church.

Philemon has a heart generous enough to see the situation and respond accordingly. With that established, Paul introduces his request:

Therefore, though I have enough confidence in Christ to order you to do what is proper, yet for love’s sake I rather appeal to you—since I am such a person as Paul, the aged, and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus— (Philemon 8-9)

Paul clearly believes that his appeal is for something true and right. So much so that he could command that Philemon do the right thing regardless of how he might feel about it. But because of Philemon's character and love for all the saints, Paul believes that he can appeal to Philemon instead. And, by golly, if Philemon does not have the love for Onesimus to do what is right, perhaps he can do it for his long time and aged friend who is in prison and who would certainly enjoy being refreshed again by Philemon once more expanding the fellowship of faith.

No wasted words. The letter has still not mentioned Onesimus, but by now Philemon has guessed the purpose of the letter. He has a choice to accept Onesimus and refresh Paul "the aged and now also a prisoner." Or reject the appeal and now bring doubt about the sincerity of his love for all the saints.

Note that Paul could have commanded, but has laid aside that path. Philemon, at this point, could almost wish that Paul had commanded. It would have been out of his hands. He could tell his slave owning friends that there was nothing that he could do about the Onesimus situation. Paul has offered the high moral ground for Philemon to take.

No wasted words. Empty flattery would have been a waste of words. It only fools those foolish enough to feed on it. A man or woman who has learned to love because it is the right thing to do is a rare and beautiful thing and should be the goal of all Christians. Many have learned that love is an act of the will. Love rises above emotion and knows and does the loving thing, Sometimes the emotional feelings--usually associated with love--will follow, but they are never necessary. Paul appeals to Philemon's sense of what a Christian is and provides some emotional support.

Do you love all the saints?

Thursday: Useless to Useful

<>< Test everything. Cling to what is good. ><>

Tuesday, December 02, 2003


No Wasted Words

This the second essay in a series covering Paul's letter to Philemon.

In a mere twenty-five verses, Paul makes an appeal for Onesimus' freedom. The New American Standard Bible translates Philemon into 473 words, which is about the size of most freshman college theme papers--at least in my freshman days.

So much accomplished in so few words.

Indeed the argument of the letter begins with the greeting:

Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, To Philemon our beloved brother and fellow worker, (Philemon 1)

To understand what I mean, take a look at how Paul introduces himself in his other letters:

Paul, a bond-servant of Christ Jesus, called as an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, (Romans 1:1)

Paul, called as an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God, and Sosthenes our brother, (1 Corinthians 1:1)

Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother,  (2 Corinthians 1:1)

Paul, an apostle (not sent from men nor through the agency of man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised Him from the dead), (Galatians 1:1)

Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, To the saints who are at Ephesus and who are faithful in Christ Jesus: (Ephesians 1:1)

Paul and Timothy, bond-servants of Christ Jesus, To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, including the overseers and deacons: (Philippians 1:1)

Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God, and Timothy our brother, (Colossians 1:1)

Paul and Silvanus and Timothy, To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace. (1 Thessalonians 1:1)

Paul and Silvanus and Timothy, To the church of the Thessalonians in God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: (2 Thessalonians 1:1)

Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus according to the commandment of God our Savior, and of Christ Jesus, who is our hope, (1 Timothy 1:1)

Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, according to the promise of life in Christ Jesus, (2 Timothy 1:1)

Paul, a bond-servant of God and an apostle of Jesus Christ, for the faith of those chosen of God and the knowledge of the truth which is according to godliness, (Titus 1:1)

Until writing to Philemon, Paul refers to himself as an apostle and a bond-servant. In did not matter whether Paul was free or in prison, he was an apostle and a bond-servant. But to Philemon, Paul announces himself as a prisoner.

  • He cannot call himself an apostle, because, in this letter, he sets aside his apostolic authority in asking Philemon to free Onesimus.
  • He cannot call himself a bond-servant, because the issue is slavery. A bond-servant is a permanent and voluntary position of slavery.
  • As a prisoner, he creates a parallel between his situation  and Onesimus. Paul is a prisoner of Christ Jesus and Onesimus is a prisoner of Philemon. As Philemon's heart moves in sympathy for Paul's situation, how will he be able to harden it over Onesimus.

No wasted words. Paul, the prisoner, calls Philemon a brother and fellow worker. Paul, Timothy, and Philemon are a team, working for the good of the Kingdom and the spread of the gospel. To not grant Paul's request will be to break this bond.

No wasted words. Here is how Paul continues:

and to Apphia our sister, and to Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house: (Philemon 2)

Paul's appeal will not be private. His letter is addressed to Philemon and to his wife Apphia and to his son Archippus and to all the believers who come to worship in his house. Common courtesy requires that the letter be made known to all. Philemon's choice to follow Paul's wishes or not will be a matter of public record.

Onesimus has not even been named and Philemon is in trouble. Paul has not even begun his argument, but Philemon is in a corner.

You have to love the pastoral skills of this man Paul. Philemon will end up doing what is right and do it willingly. But to say that in the end Philemon chose to do what was right is another matter. When Paul was done, Philemon could only have chosen to do wrong!

All this in 473 words.

Wednesday: Philemon's love for all the saints.

Monday, December 01, 2003


Philemon glared angrily at the young man standing before and snatched the letter from his hand. Opening the letter he read:

Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, 

To Philemon our beloved brother and fellow worker, and to Apphia our sister, and to Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house: 

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. (Philemon 1-3)

What a strange day this was turning out to be. The young man before him was named Onesimus, who had been a slave in Philemon's household. He had runaway some time ago, and now had returned carrying this letter from Paul.

The letter was short, but it would cause Philemon to search his soul. It would bring him to hard choices.


Most human civilizations have or have had a practice of enslaving others. Slaves could be defeated enemies. Slaves could be debtors unable to pay what they owe. Slaves could be born as slaves. That the practice is common has never made it right. That it persists in its various forms reveals much about the hearts of men and women.

Slavery requires strong cultural support. Men and women will rarely choose to be slaves. People are slaves only when it is not in their power to be free. A society that sanctions slavery must sanction penalties that induce fear in slaves. The slave owner must have the right to use physical force against his slaves, for they must fear him to remain slaves. The slave owner must also have to right to maim or kill a slave who runs away or revolts, because that is a slave's ultimate crime. 

Onesimus, Philemon's slave had run away. There is evidence that he had stolen from his master when he left. For this, Onesimus before Philemon was in very bad trouble. He should not have returned, but he had--carrying a letter from Paul.

Slavery Practiced by Christians

There were Christians in England and the United States of America who bought and owned slaves. From several New Testament references, one must conclude that early Christians also bought and owned slaves. The sad fact is that those who have owned slaves have used the Bible to justify the practice. They confused regulation with approval.

The Bible has done the same for other practices. The most obvious is the regulation of marriage:

  • Polygamy -- Old Testament Law regulated the practice of having multiple wives by limiting the pool of women from which you could consider marrying (Leviticus 18). It required a man to marry his brother's wife (Deuteronomy 25:5). 
  • Divorce -- Old Testament Law regulated the practice of divorce (Deuteronomy 24:3)

And yet in the New Testament, Jesus established the ideal of one man and one woman united as husband and wife:

Some Pharisees came to Jesus, testing Him and asking, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any reason at all?” 

And He answered and said, “Have you not read that He who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate.” 

They said to Him, “Why then did Moses command to give her a certificate of divorce and send her away?” 

He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses permitted you to divorce your wives; but from the beginning it has not been this way. And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.” (Matthew 19:3-9)

So just because the Law regulated polygamy and divorce does not place God's seal of approval on the practice. The same is true with the practice of slavery. In Jesus' day, the Jews no longer practiced polygamy and servants were accorded higher status than hired hands. But slavery persisted and so even the New Testament regulated it. For example, Colossians 4:1 reads, "Masters, grant to your slaves justice and fairness, knowing that you too have a Master in heaven." (Colossians 4:1)

Side Note: It is interesting to see the Biblical wisdom behind regulating what might be impossible to stop. As Jesus said, "Because of the hardness of heart." Because of our hard hearts, there will be cultural institutions that the Lord tolerates and regulates, because they are impossible to eradicate given our sinful leanings. As Christians, we can apply this principle in democratic governance. How much more effective might our efforts to enact pro-life legislation improve if we could tolerate a less than perfect solution. So much of our efforts have been all or nothing. By seeking abolition instead of regulation, many more unborn children have died. This is not to say that abolition should cease to be the goal. It rather suggests that when society is not ready for abolition, regulation is a biblical alternative. 

Philemon, Onesimus, and Paul

In his letter, Paul will ask Philemon to free his former slave. In doing so, Paul is striking into a cultural situation. Philemon must not only overcome his own attitude towards this thieving run away slave, but he must also face the disapproval of his slave owning friends. By being lenient, he weakens the system.

That Paul succeeded is evident from the fact that we have the letter to this day. It made its point and the impact rippled through the church, and the church made the letter its own.

Tuesday: Philemon -- No Wasted Words